Liability for Gun Accidents & Injuries

According to the National Center for Injury Protection and Control, each year more than 70,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms for non-fatal gunshot injuries. Another 30,000 die each year from gun-related homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings.

The Center for Disease Control says gun accidents cause more than 15 percent of the injuries and deaths from gunshot wounds. If you've been injured in a gun accident, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries. If a friend or loved one died as a result of a gun accident, their estate may have a valid wrongful death claim.

Common causes of gun accidents:

Inadequate training

Guns have a variety of names: sidearms, weapons, firearms, handguns, etc. The number of different makes and models is endless, ranging from the moderately harmful BB gun to the lethal high-precision sniper rifle. Knowing the proper way to handle a firearm is essential. Without proper training, the probability of injuries from accidental discharges rises dramatically.

Firearms training courses are available in just about every city and town across the country. For a fee, these courses provide classroom and on-range instruction in firearm handling, discharge, and overall safety. Because students pay them, the directors of these firearms courses have a responsibility to ensure their students receive adequate training.

When inadequate training results in the accidental discharge of a firearm, causing injuries or death, it's possible the training course's director or owner may be liable. Of course, the individual directly responsible for the gun accident would also be liable for any injuries.

Poor gun range management

Gun ranges can be dangerous places. They're often loud, and large numbers of "shooters" are in confined areas separated from each other by only a few feet. The danger compounds because the shooters must wear ear protection, restricting their ability to hear.

It's common to find law enforcement officers, criminals, business tycoons, and soccer moms standing a foot or more apart from each other with weapons loaded and ready. Many have several weapons and multiple boxes of ammunition.

Gun range injuries include punctured eardrums, sprains, contusions, abrasions (scrapes), and bone fractures from slipping and falling on ejected shell casings and leaked gun oil. Deaths from accidental weapon discharges are rare, but they have happened. When poor gun range management results in injuries or death, the owner and manager may be liable.

Lack of parental supervision

In most cases, parents are civilly (legally) responsible for their children's actions. This means the consequences of a minor's actions are the parents' responsibility, requiring them to give compensation for injuries caused by their children.

Parents who fail to effectively secure firearms out of the reach of children are inherently negligent. In the unfortunate event a child gets hold of a firearm and discharges it, causing injury or death, the injured victim or their family can take the parents to civil court, and/or the police can arrest and charge the child's parent(s) with crimes.

Reckless firearm handling

Passing firearms back and forth, aiming guns and playing at shooting, failing to keep the safety engaged (automatic and semi-automatic), and celebratory firing into the air are some examples of reckless behavior. When reckless gun handling results in injuries or death, the firearm's owner and the shooter can be held liable.

Alcohol or drug consumption

Accidental firearm discharge after consuming alcohol or other drugs is a leading cause of gun injuries. Alcohol- and drug-related gun accidents can occur when gun owners are at home cleaning their guns or when showing their guns to others. They often occur when a gun owner fails to empty the gun of its ammunition or when he thinks it isn't loaded.

Some hunters take a nip or two of alcohol to keep them warm early in the morning while sitting in their deer blinds or when stalking game. There are numerous reports of alcohol-impaired hunters who shot other hunters thinking they were deer, bears, or other game. When alcohol or drug use causes a shooting accident resulting in injuries or death, the shooter will likely be held civilly and criminally liable.

Accidental discharge

Accidental discharge covers an array of circumstances. Anyone can accidentally discharge a firearm while cleaning it, transporting it in a car, or carrying it. Failing to engage the safety, dropping the firearm, or grasping the firearm with a finger on the trigger are additional causes of gun accidents. When, regardless of intent, an accidental discharge occurs causing injuries or death, the owner and shooter will likely be held liable.

Manufacturer's or sellers' defect (product liability)

High-end firearms can sell for more than $20,000, while brand-new "Saturday night specials" sell in gun stores for about $200. In between, there are thousands of different makes and models of guns, all constructed with varying degrees of quality. Whatever the cost, a gun owner has a right to know the gun he purchased will function correctly and not cause injuries due to poor assembly or manufacturing defect.

When, because of poor workmanship or defect, a firearm unexpectedly discharges or breaks apart, causing injuries, the manufacturer and the store where the owner purchased the firearm can be held liable. The legal doctrine applied to seller and manufacturer defect is known as product liability.

Liability: Whose fault is it?

The law recognizes a difference between accidental and negligent discharges. It's more difficult to succeed in a personal injury claim when the discharge was accidental rather than negligent. Therefore, the more evidence you have showing someone's negligence was responsible, the stronger your claim.

Accidental discharge can occur even when the gun owner had proper training and took all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of others. For example, as an owner placed his gun in a locked cabinet, it slipped out of his hands, fell to the ground and discharged. In another example, during a training session, a student's finger slipped off the trigger guard onto the trigger, causing the gun to discharge.

In both of these cases, the responsible parties can argue they took all proper safety precautions, so the discharges were accidental.

Negligent discharge occurs when the gun owner or shooter fails to exercise reasonable care and precaution when handling the gun, thereby endangering the safety of others.

For example, prior to placing his gun in a locked cabinet, a gun owner consumed several beers. Then the gun slipped out of his hands, fell to the floor and discharged. When the police responded, they administered a breath test, which showed the gun owner was under the influence.

In another example, during a training session, the instructor handed a gun to a student telling her it wasn't ready to fire because he engaged the safety. While holding the gun, the student placed her finger on the trigger, and it discharged.

In these cases, the gun accidents were caused by behavior that unreasonably jeopardized the safety of others, so the discharges were due to negligence.

Gathering Evidence

Witness statements

Witnesses can be powerful allies. Their written statements may prove negligence over accident. Make sure you ask any witnesses to the accident to give a statement. Any kind of paper will do, just remind them to sign and date each page. Insurance companies don't require notarizing or sworn statements.

Examples of helpful witness statements:

If a gun range owner were to claim your slip and fall injury was accidental, your witnesses might dispute that claim by stating you slipped and fell on hundreds of spent casings on the floor. Further, if any of your witnesses previously informed range management of the danger the casings posed, they should add that information in their statements.

In another example, a neighbor's 13-year-old son shot your son in the face with a BB gun. The parents of the 13-year-old said it wasn't their son. Their son was at home playing video games at the time of the shooting. Your witnesses can confirm the identity of the 13-year-old and verify he was the one who pointed and fired the BB gun at your son.

Security surveillance footage

Security cameras can produce graphic evidence in an injury claim. Most gun ranges have security cameras. It's likely the range owner won't voluntarily turn over the security footage to you, but rest assured, the insurance company will look at the footage. And if a personal injury lawsuit becomes necessary, your attorneys can subpoena the tape.

Example of using security camera footage:

Susie, a woman standing 5'3" tall and weighing 100 pounds, had never held a gun before, so she decided to attend a beginners' gun training course. After a couple of hours in the classroom, the instructor took the students to the nearby gun range.

Because she didn't own a gun, Susie rented one from the gun range. She chose a .45 caliber. Without advice or suggestion, the clerk rented it to her. (A .45 caliber is much too powerful a weapon for a beginner, especially a woman weighing 100 pounds.) While at the range, the instructor showed Susie how to point and shoot. As Susie fired the .45 caliber, it recoiled, struck her in the face, and fractured her cheekbone.

Security footage showed the clerk renting the .45 caliber to Susie. The footage also showed the instructor failing to instruct Susie how to properly hold and fire the weapon and to brace for its recoil.

Medical bills and other costs

Damages are the basis of any personal injury claim. They can include medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering, also called emotional distress or mental anguish. Insurance companies base their settlement offers on the amount and type of a victim's damages.

Without proof of real damages, there's no personal injury claim. You can't file a claim because a gun owner handled a gun recklessly in front of you or your children, or because you thought your training instructor wasn't very good at his job. You must present evidence of real damages for your injury claim to succeed.

Dealing With the Insurance Company

In the case of a minor gun accident resulting in scratches, minor abrasions, or sprained hands or fingers, homeowner or business insurance may pay damages up to about $1,000. In these cases it's not necessary to prove negligence. The insurance company will pay up to $1,000 based on the damages alone, excluding pain and suffering. If your damages are higher, you have to prove negligence.

You can probably handle your own minor injury claim without retaining an attorney. When giving your statement to the insurance adjuster, at all costs don't say anything that would suggest you contributed to your own injuries. Avoid statements like, "We had a couple of beers," or "The gun range guy told me the gun was too large for me."

Once the adjuster has all your evidence, together with proof of medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and if applicable, your employer's written verification of lost income, you can begin settlement negotiations.

Personal Injury Attorneys

Unfortunately, most gun injuries are quite serious. Only an experienced personal injury attorney should handle gunshot wounds, bone fractures, etc. Attorneys can file lawsuits and cut through insurance company red tape by issuing subpoenas. They can take depositions (recorded statements) from uncooperative witnesses and request company records showing instructor training deficiencies.

There's just too much at stake in serious injury cases. An experienced personal injury attorney will almost certainly settle your claim for a substantially higher amount than you could representing yourself.

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